"As long as families are hungry and older men prey on young girls, the law alone will not protect our children"
By Marko Phiri
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, March 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Oriditsi Tlou got pregnant at age 15 last year, her grandmother Judith Mhlongo was quick to demand damages and a bride payment from Tlou's older boyfriend.
Mhlongo, who was Tlou's guardian, said it made sense to demand a bride price, or lobola, for a traditional marriage which allowed her to refurbish her home while her granddaughter made the fast transition from schoolgirl to housewife.
For although Zimbabwe this year outlawed child marriage, many parents and guardians continue to sanction under-age traditional marriages and withdraw rape charges in exchange for a bride price but this is now putting them in the sights of the law.
"I survive on a very small pension. It would not have made sense to look after my granddaughter when we all knew who was responsible for her pregnancy," Mhlongo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A fresh push by Zimbabwean government to tackle child marriage could land guardians like Mhlongo in trouble in the southern African nation where child marriage is rife.
An estimated one third of girls are married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF. Child rights campaigners describe child marriage as a form of child abuse which deprives girls of an education, increases the likelihood of sexual violence, and puts them at risk of death or injury in childbirth.
In January this year Zimbabwe's Constitutional Court ruled that no one in Zimbabwe may enter into any marriage, including customary law unions, before the age of 18.
But with child marriage still entrenched in remote mining and farming areas, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa told parliament this week that amendments to legislation will now target parents and guardians who accept bride prices.
"The Act should make it an offence for a guardian or other person to enter into a lobola agreement or other customary arrangement or ceremony in respect of a person under the age of 18," Mnangagwa told parliament.
Legislator Jessie Majome, who chairs the Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Portfolio Committee, said if the laws were amended, it would be up to the courts to decide the appropriate sentence for parents and guardians fixing these agreements.
Legal amendments about 10 years ago set a maximum sentence for anyone accepting a bride price for an under-age girl at 10 years but campaigners want this to be increased.
While some parents welcomed the push for stiffer penalties, others such as Portia Ndlovu, a primary school teacher, said the causes of child marriage must be tackled to make a real change.
Poverty is the driving force behind child marriage in Zimbabwe. Parents often marry girls off young so they have less mouths to feed and bride payments are a further incentive.
"It's a welcome move, but as long as families are hungry and older men prey on young girls, the law alone will not protect our children," Ndlovu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Globally, some 15 million girls are married every year. Across sub-Saharan Africa, two in five girls wed as children. (Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; )
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